UND is exploring the possibility of forging a partnership with a major education brand to extend its online reach.

University President Mark Kennedy said it could still be months before UND signs an agreement with education giant Pearson to serve as the school's online program manager, or OPM. But the move could give UND a path to extend its reach in the digital market.

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Kennedy has been vocal about the role he sees distance education playing in the future of the institution. About 25 percent of UND's students are already online-only, and UND's overarching strategic plan reflects online programming as a major focus point for future expansion.

"We have a very broad offering of online programs today, but they have not necessarily reached as wide an audience as they could necessarily reach," Kennedy said. "To really deliver them to as wide an audience as possible, hitting every corner of North Dakota and beyond, Pearson brings an expertise that is not resident at UND."

He's quick to note the university doesn't intend to give up control of the academic content it delivers online. He says UND would be in charge of "what the curriculum is and how it's delivered," and would maintain other typical functions such as admissions and financial aid.

As the potential OPM, Pearson would oversee marketing and recruiting students. It would also provide student support for those who do choose to take UND courses online.

If UND does finalize an agreement with Pearson, it would mark a first for the North Dakota University System.

"It's an intriguing idea," said Richard Rothaus, NDUS vice chancellor of academic and student affairs. In his own experience as an educator, Rothaus said the logistics tied to student support are one of the biggest pieces brought to the table by a company like Pearson.

"Having taught online, that's where it gets overwhelming really quickly," he said. "If I'm teaching in the classroom and someone asks when the final is, I can roll my eyes and say it's on the syllabus for this Wednesday and then I'm done for that class. Once you're in the online world, you get 30 emails with that same question, all worded in a different way."

Basic housekeeping like that can become labor-intensive to the point of impeding online growth. Rothaus said he "can't even imagine" the volume of email that would be required for a major course taught exclusively online. With instructors focusing mainly on academics, the other moving parts associated with the medium could get overwhelming-and possibly lead to wider problems with the course.

"Students will walk real quick if they're not getting the service they want," Rothaus said.

The logistics of online learning could prevent an obstacle to scale, or bringing in a wider net of students to fill digital seats. Working with the OPM could provide an answer to that.

Kennedy said UND would want Pearson to promote the "top-shelf" of the school's online offerings, which would still be delivered through the existing Blackboard learning management system. If an agreement is signed, he said the roll-out for working with Pearson could possibly involve a "handful" of programs brought online this coming fall, with another round the year after.

With the possibility of more eyes around the country being drawn to UND academics, Kennedy said the online offerings would have to be worth their while.

"I would say the programs we offer through Pearson would have the potential to scale, and you're not going to scale unless you're premier quality," he said.